Public health officials have rejected as impractical and risky the “zero-Covid” strategy increasingly advocated by Opposition politicians.
In unusually forthright criticism, senior members of the National Public Health Emergency Team (Nphet) accused proponents of the strategy of making “false promises” that an end to lockdown can be achieved soon through virus elimination.
"It is an utterly false promise to say we can go to Level 0 or 1 in the space of weeks or months," Prof Philip Nolan, chair of Nphet's epidemiological modelling advisory group, told a briefing on Thursday evening. "That won't happen, and it would be an incredibly risky thing to do because we will inevitably be a leaky country and get reintroduction of disease, and that could easily be new variants."
Zero-Covid, defined by academics as "the absence for a suitable period of time of community transmissions", is partially or fully supported by most Opposition parties and some Government TDs. Taoiseach Micheál Martin and Tánaiste Leo Varadkar have both cast doubt on its feasibility.
Prof Nolan said he shared the aim of reducing community transmission of the virus to “as close as practicable” to zero, stopping non-essential travel and doing “everything we can” through testing and isolation to limit the risk of reintroducing infection.
“But we have to accept in the circumstances of this country that no such system will be perfect and can guarantee the complete exclusion of any new disease or variant.”
According to chief medical officer Dr Tony Holohan, zero-Covid would be very difficult to apply "in a realistic way in an environment like ours".
Ireland is a small economy dependent on its links with Europe and "we simply couldn't realistically seal the borders of this country and stop people moving in and out". It was, he said, "far more reasonable to pursue the present policy of driving down community transmission, and getting people vaccinated as quickly as possible".
Nphet, which on Thursday reported 47 deaths and 1,466 cases linked to Covid-19, said huge progress has been made in the past week in controlling the spread of the virus. However, the incidence is still twice as high as it was during the October peak, and the average number of deaths is higher than during the first wave last spring.
The Health Service Executive is to resume testing of close contacts on Friday, a month after it was forced to stop due to the post-Christmas surge in cases. It is also restarting telephone calls to contacts after a period during which they were informed of their status by text message.
Meanwhile, the Government is working to draw up regulations and legislation for new restrictions on international travel. Officials in several Government departments are grappling with complex legal issues, including how to enforce quarantining and impose fines on people making non-essential trips into the Republic from the North.
Under the plans, there will be mandatory quarantining at a designated facility for incoming travellers who cannot provide a negative pre-departure Covid-19 test, as well as all those travelling from Brazil and South Africa. Other travellers will be required by law to quarantine at home.
It is understood a target date of the end of the month has been set for the introduction of several measures, including increasing fines from €100 to €500 for people caught returning from non-essential travel abroad and developing a slimmed down exemptions list for people who are permitted to travel internationally,
A Government source said officials were “working through all the proposals as a matter of urgency”.